“The Nickel Boys,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, follows the lives of two boys sent to a reform school in Florida during the 1960s. Elwood and Turner come from different backgrounds and have different outlooks on life, but they forge a friendship amid the horrific conditions of Nickel Academy. The fictional Nickel is based off a real reform school, the Dozier School in Florida.
“Even in death the boys were trouble.” With Whitehead’s introduction we get a sense of what’s to come in the novel. We know from the first few words that Nickel is a place of horrors, and one that not every boy made it out of alive. By the end of the chapter, we feel a sense that one of our main characters will be one of them. This foreshadowing adds to the dread felt as we read through the novel. Even when the characters feel hopeful, the reader is on edge. It makes it impossible to ever feel fully safe in the character’s joy -- much like the characters themselves often feel.
As the novel progresses, it transitions from the past to the present day. The switch is often seamless, with no real indication one way or the other. It shows how fresh the memories of Nickel are for Elwood. Even decades later, the horrors still feel as if they could have happened yesterday, as they happened in the last chapter for us readers.
The boys' personalities provide an interesting contrast, their perspectives different though their experiences, at least at Nickel, are much the same. Elwood holds on to his ideals through the mistreatment, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. echoing in his head. Turner, meanwhile, thinks his friend is naive. “You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other.” This line sums up the difference between them well.
The contrast between the boys also prompts introspection on how we as a society view and value Black boys. Elwood, the well-educated, bespectacled, idealistic young man seems the most sympathetic narrator. But that is an instinct we need to call out. The book leads us to it, as it transitions, once again without much indication, to Turner’s point of view. He is the cynic to Elwood’s idealist, but his life and his future are just as valuable.
When we decided to read the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction I had high expectations for what I would find in the pages of this relatively short novel. The introduction, which Rebecca writes about, grabbed my attention and the novel would not let go until I finished the epilogue. Even before getting to the final “twist” of the book Colson’s work exceeded every expectation.
We choose books to read for RiverTown Reads a month or more in advance of when we read them and yet, the last few picks seem to be more relevant to our current reality than we could have anticipated. Maggie O'Farrell's “I Am, I Am, I Am,” for example, covers sickness, loneliness and fear; all topics that are all too real during the coronavirus pandemic. "he Nickel Boys," meanwhile, is an excellent book to read now in the midst of conversations around equality, injustices and creating a better society.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel is Whitehead’s character creation. Within the book's short span I began to feel as if I knew the characters and their history. So, when the novel’s end was not ideal for every boy at Nickel (no spoilers!) it was heart-wrenching.
Next month RiverTown Reads will read “Quiet” by Susan Cain.